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Learning to let go of perfectionism

March 1, 2021
Maybe being a perfectionist is not what's best for you and your career in dental hygiene. While many RDHs believe perfectionism is what drives them, there are other, less stressful ways to be good in your profession.

I recently read an insightful article about perfectionism. It began by stating, “If you’re wondering whether or not you’re a perfectionist, there’s a good chance you are, at least to a degree.”1 Allow me to add, “If you are a dental hygienist, then you are probably a perfectionist.”

From school to private practice, perfectionism seems to be part of our DNA. As a dental hygienist who has many RDH friends, I can guess what you’re thinking: “I’m not giving it up and don’t try and tell me it’s not a good thing. It’s the reason I always remove all the stain, calculus, and biofilm.” Those are good things; they’re part of what give us confidence that we are excellent hygienists.

The problem with perfection is that week after week, day after day, and hour after hour, it’s unattainable. There will always be a patient you cannot satisfy, a speck of calculus you miss, or a radiograph that misses the mark. What separates the commitment to excellence from perfectionism is how you handle the misses. Perfectionists tend to be extremely critical of themselves over the smallest infraction. Leaving a piece of calculus can turn into a browbeating and “I’m not a good hygienist,” versus realizing that every hygienist has left a piece of calculus behind and you’ll do better next time.

It's easy to think that being a perfectionist is what sets us apart from others, and it does. But probably not in the way that you think. Rather than propelling us to the top, more often perfectionism holds us back, undermines relationships, and keeps us from being the best version of ourselves.

Each of us has that little voice in our head that can motivate us and keep us on the right path. It’s when that voice becomes an inner critic that it becomes unhealthy. Being highly critical of yourself can lead to being highly critical of others. Once you get into the habit of focusing on the negative, you see it everywhere—in coworkers, patients, family, and friends. Being overly hard on yourself and others is not an asset. It erodes your self-esteem and confidence. It can lead to depression and procrastination, and it doesn’t make you a good team player.

If you’re a perfectionist, your perfectionist brain may be telling you, “This is who I am; don’t fight it.” You may always have perfectionist tendencies, but you can develop skills that will help you achieve balance. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have done extensive work about confidence in women, including in their bestselling book, The Confidence Code for Girls.2 They found that it’s not women’s emotions that drive our thoughts, but our thoughts that drive our emotions, and our emotions influence our actions.

To deal with negative thoughts, one tactic they found useful was to keep a journal. Every evening, they suggest that you write down all of the automatic negative thoughts that circled in your head through the day. Then, instead of beating yourself up for those thoughts, look at each one and try to reframe it, positively or even neutrally. Another tool they found helpful was to write down a negative thought on paper, crumple up the paper, and throw it away. These tools can help retrain the brain and keep negative thoughts in perspective.

Another good tool is to focus on what you do well. It takes three positive experiences to counteract a negative one. When you find yourself stuck in a negative thought process, take a moment to write down three things that you do well, and figure out ways you can spend your time doing more of those things. Part of success is knowing your strengths and capitalizing on them. It can drive positivity, motivation, and enhance confidence.

Learning to manage or let go of at least some of our perfectionist tendencies can help us find greater success in work and in life. We find it easier to be kind to ourselves and others. Goals become more attainable, and missteps become opportunities to learn and grow. Fear of failure is replaced by faith in yourself to succeed.


1. Scott E. Perfectionist traits: Do these sounds familiar? Very well mind. February 22, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/signs-you-may-be-a-perfectionist-3145233
2.  Kay K, Shipman C. The Confidence Code for Girls. Harper Row. April 18, 2018.

CAROL JAHN, MS, RDH, is the educational programs manager for Waterpik Technologies, where she designs multimedia educational programs for dental professionals. She provides continuing education programs in the areas of periodontics and patient compliance. Jahn may be reached at [email protected].